CETL Podcast - Episode 8: Toa Tawa

Tony Pellegrini: Good afternoon friends; Tony Pellegrini here! Welcome to another year of teaching and learning at Southern Utah University. I’m grateful to be able to have this opportunity to share this podcast with you. Today we have, for our first guest this year; we have Toa Tawa from the English department here at SUU. Toa and I are very dear friends—very old friends, from the last hundred years or so. And Toa is a great asset to our university and has a unique perspective that he shares with our learners that is very profound. Toa, can you take a moment or two, tell us a little about yourself, where you've been, some of the fun things that have led you here to SUU. And then the question I'd like you to start with is: tell us about what's unique, special, different that you, here at SUU, that you're able to develop that passion—your passion—and engage your learner's here at SUU. Does that sound okay, Toa?

Toa Tawa: You bet, you bet!

Tony Pellegrini: Go right ahead, sir.

Toa Tawa: Well thank you, first of all, Tony, for inviting me to be a part of this. I guess I should start by telling you that I was born and raised in New Zealand and grew up in a family who valued education. My mother was [an] elementary school teacher, and so at a very young age I understood exactly what it meant to be a teacher. And I knew also, at a very young age, that this was the vocation that I was going to pursue. So I come from good stock and had that influence a part of my life for all of my life.

Tony Pellegrini: So, Toa, let me ask, and you’ve already validated—that family is a critical component in being a good teacher and being a good learner.

Toa Tawa: Yeah I do. I think it's an essential part of understanding the educational process and then having those influences in my life kind of spurred me forward knowing and understanding exactly what this vocation would entail. And really, they were other influences in my life besides my immediate family. I had some great teachers, great examples growing up, and those examples inspired me to continue in my education, to obtain my degree. So as a young boy that desire to become an educator started when I was very very young. And then, when I graduated from high school, I had the opportunity to attend Brigham Young University-Hawaii campus. And those influences there also encouraged me to continue in this vocation. I think that I have a rather unfair advantage because as a teacher because one of the, you asked the question earlier, what is it that I do, what approaches, what strategies do I use in teaching. One of the things I think that might be an unfair advantage for me is that I come from a very unique culture, and I utilize my experience and my culture, the customs and traditions that I grew up with. I use that in my class to engage students. And so as you know Tony I [was] born and raised in New Zealand. I am Māori and I come from a family of entertainers as well. So to me the classroom is just another stage; it's just another platform for me in which to, you know, to give a performance. And when you're in teaching mode, you have created for yourself a persona and that persona helps to keep students I think interested and engaged. And in many ways they are unaware that while being entertained and engaged they're actually learning. I think that's one of the tricks that I have in my bag is to teach while students aren't aware that they are being taught. I don't know if that makes sense, but it's one of the things that I've relied on and have been fairly successful with time and time again. I tell stories. I tell stories about myself. I tell stories about my childhood, about things that my family would do when we were young. And that keeps them interested—while I'm now talking about all the principles and components related to things English.

Tony Pellegrini: Well, Toa, let me interrupt for just a moment. What a wonderful model, what a wonderful scaffold for us to follow. Talk to us about how you may be encouraged—you model that for your learner's; how do you encourage that storytelling in your learners to say, “This is a two-way street here. I want to learn about you and wearing your culture and where you come from.”

Toa Tawa: It's interesting that you asked that question because I recently gave an assignment to my students where I wanted them to reveal something about themselves that connected them to a place. That gave me an idea of who they are, what they were about by connecting themselves to an actual place—whatever that place might be. That place might be your home; that place might be your workplace; that place [might] be a location of cultural or historical significance. I wanted it to be an assignment that was more than just your, you know, “my name is, and I am from…” but I wanted them to show something about themselves by revealing their sense of place. So I revealed something about myself and I guess I introduced this unit by talking a little bit about the New Zealand and where I was raised and how important one's connection to the land and to the tribe. And typically, you know, in New Zealand for indigenous people, you don't you don't usually introduce yourself by saying your name; I know that's fairly common here in Western culture. But typically—and I think this is the case for many indigenous cultures—you introduce yourself by identifying various landmarks in your area, such as mountains, or rivers, or oceans, and even one's connection to a genealogy through, in my case as a Polynesian, one of the seven original canoes that brought the indigenous people to New Zealand. That connection to tribe and history is often more telling than just a name. And I think making that connection with students gave them a deeper sense of self, and a much more, I think, deeper meaning to what it means to be connected to an actual place.

Tony Pellegrini: That is very, very interesting. My grandfather was an immigrant from Italy, and as I visit with my cousins, as I visit with other Italoamericani that are here in the United States, they’ll ask me, “Where are you from? Where is your family from?” Italy is not enough! They want to know location, location! Because it is so telling; we don't have seven canoes in Italy, but that location is so, so important. That is very, very interesting.

Toa Tawa: Yeah I mean it anchors—by giving your location and tracing your genealogy to those land marks you're actually giving more information about your genealogy and your history then simply a name. And so that's what we're looking for, something a little bit more deeper, something more meaningful.

Tony Pellegrini: How exciting, Toa! How exciting. I hope this has been helpful to our listeners—both to professors who may be listening and then the students that may be curious to take a class from Toa. Toa, any last minute things that you would care to share as a part of this?

Toa Tawa: One of the other questions you asked, I think earlier, was why SUU…

Tony Pellegrini: Oh yes please!

Toa Tawa: I love this visible—I love this area. I think our proximity to the National Parks makes it an ideal location; but more than that it's the people in this area in Southern Utah that make it a very, very special place. And to add to that: the faculty here and the staff at Southern Utah University, I think, are a fantastic group of people who genuinely are concerned about, you know, the students here at SUU, about their welfare, but also about their academic progress. I don't know of any faculty member who's not willing to meet with students and help students meet their academic goals and objectives. So I think this is a fantastic university and would just encourage any students who are considering attending SUU—this would be a good place to start.

Tony Pellegrini: It's been a wonderful place for me and for my family, my children, it's just been—I concur wholeheartedly. Friends: thank you so much for attending today. Toa, thank you so much, and we just appreciate you and look forward to further conversations in the future—Toa and everyone else! See you around campus! Thanks guys.

Toa Tawa: Thank you, Tony.

Tony Pellegrini: Ciao ciao!


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